I've read quite a few books about Arnhem, but this one was quite different. The author is a Dutchman who met an ex-glider pilot, Morley Williams, through reading his account of the battle and experiences as a prisoner while doing voluntary work at the Airborne Museum in Oosterbeek.
Having made contact with Mr Williams, the first part of the book tells Williams' story before the war, at Arnhem, as a prisoner-of-war and after the war was over. However, the ex-pilot was curious to know what happened to the platoon of infantry that he helped fly to the battle over 50 years earlier.
The second part of the book is the Dutchman's account of how he went about finding which glider the pilot flew, then which unit was in it, then a list of the men's names, and finally the men themselves.
The third part of the book is his account of the platoon, which turns out to be 13 Platoon, B Company, 1st Border Regiment, during the battle and on to prisoner-of-war camps. This is pieced together from the men's memories, stories from their relatives and official accounts. The final part of the book then tells the story of what happened to the men after the war was over.
The writing has been translated from Dutch, and I really enjoyed the reminder this was a `labour of love' from a Dutchman on behalf of British soldiers and airmen. The author is a journalist and writes in a very accessible and engaging style, clearly becoming personally involved in the story. The platoon was positioned by the Driel Ferry, on the Westerbouwing, and after a fairly quiet (though tense) couple of days they were heavily attacked on the 20th. The maps are helpful, and tie-in with the text; this shouldn't be a rarity in a military history, but it is and was much appreciated. I would have liked to see a few more pictures of where the fighting took place, but typing place names such as `Westerbouwing' into an internet search engine gives you a general idea.
Several things struck me as I read the account the author had pieced together. The first was how quickly the platoon who shared the glider ride together was fragmented by the battle. After the battle on the 20th September much of the unit's cohesion was lost and after a second encounter with the enemy, men were doing their best as individuals, reporting to any officer they could find. The second was that while the British troops were very intensively trained, for many this was their first time in battle and they were still learning. The second encounter with the enemy sounded like a mess-up to me with the British troops not even taking the most basic of precautions against a surprise attack, and I felt quite guilty making this judgement, so I was relieved to turn the page and find a surviving soldier voicing my thoughts. Thinking back to other books I had read about Arnhem I can now see both of these elements - the disintegration of units and the battle-naivety of the troops - but it had really never struck me so forcefully before.
However, the fighting takes up a relatively small portion of the book and the emphasis is on the men themselves. It is hard not to be moved by this in several ways. There is obvious compassion for men thrown into battle, with the photographs reminding us just how young (and full of hope) they were, but also the rounding out of them as people with connections - somebody's brother, father, husband, sweetheart or son. But most surprising was the struggle many of them admitted to in coping with their memories in what we would now recognise as post-traumatic stress.
I could go on and on in this review but I hope you have heard enough to reach your conclusion. This book is certainly a little more expensive than average but I think it would absorb many people, not just those interested in military history. Haks Walburgh Schmidt: thank you.